Rescue mission bringing Haitian orphans to Pittsburgh

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A team of medical personnel accompanied by Gov. Ed Rendell and U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire was in the air and headed to Pittsburgh early today with 53 children from an orphanage in earthquake-ravaged Haiti.

The mercy mission, which included medical staffers from several Pittsburgh area hospitals, was beset with paperwork problems involving the orphans that forced the rescue team to return on a different plane.

But after several hours on the ground at the airport in Port-au-Prince, the children boarded a C-130 military transport plane and took off around 11 o'clock last night, bound for Homestead Air Force Base in Florida. After a refueling stop, the plane was to fly to Pittsburgh.

The mercy mission, funded by an unknown sponsor, left about 11 a.m. yesterday from Pittsburgh International Airport aboard a Republic Airways chartered jetliner that carried Mr. Rendell, Mr. Altmire and the medical teams.

But after landing in Port-au-Prince early yesterday evening, the jetliner, which was only allowed to remain on the ground for two hours, was forced to depart before officials could resolve some documentation issues, said Gary Tuma, a spokesman for the governor.

Mr. Tuma said officials scrambled to secure another plane to bring the orphans back to Pittsburgh.

The rescue mission came in response to messages last week from sisters Jamie and Ali McMutrie of Ben Avon, who said last Tuesday's devastating earthquake endangered the health of 130 children in their care at the BRESMA orphanage in Port-au-Prince.

Mr. Tuma did not know whether any of the children had serious injuries from the earthquake, which destroyed a large part of their orphanage.

Earlier yesterday, officials said the plan was to have as many as 61 children, ages 1 to 4, waiting at the Port-au-Prince airport and immediately board the plane, which was under orders to leave within two hours. Once in Pittsburgh, they were to be taken to Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC for evaluation, Mr. Tuma said.

UPMC officials early this morning put the number of children on board the plane at 53.

Also aboard the charter flight were medical personnel from UPMC, West Penn Allegheny Health System, Pittsburgh Mercy Health System and Excela Health.

Catholic Charities has made arrangements for their care until they are adopted, he said.

About 90 other children from the orphanage were being taken in similar rescue missions conducted by the Dutch and French governments, he said.

The Pennsylvania mission was arranged with various agencies including the U.S. State Department, the Department of Homeland Security and military.

"The reason the governor is personally on the plane is that the Haitian ambassador thought it was important to have someone of his stature on the plane so if the mission ran into difficulty he might be able to break down some of the barriers," Mr. Tuma said.

He said he did not know how the mission was being funded.

Also among those on board was Mary Carrasco, director of A Child's Place in the Pittsburgh Mercy system, which provides care for children who are abused, neglected or in foster care. With her was a Haitian interpreter who speaks Creole to communicate with the children, according to Joan Mills, who works in Dr. Carrasco's office.

Over the days leading up to the trip, Dr. Carrasco and her team gathered medical supplies including Pedialyte, wipes, diapers, cups, bottles, pacifiers and other items to care for the children.

Ms. Mills said they expected to find children beset with dehydration, diarrhea and other problems related to lack of food, water, health care and sanitary facilities.

Also on the flight were Joyce Leifer, a pediatrician who is associated with Children's Hospital; Ed Sites of the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work; Connie Moore of Excela Health's Latrobe Hospital, who has experience as a pediatric nurse; and three professionals from West Penn Allegheny: Chip Lambert, an emergency medicine doctor, Deborah Bohan, a physician's assistant in pediatrics critical care at AGH Suburban, and Arc Balest, a neonatalogist.

Ms. Moore told Robin Jennings, an Excela spokeswoman, in an e-mail at 11 a.m. yesterday that the medical team was in the plane and ready to go, waiting on the tarmac, with Mr. Rendell and Mr. Altmire aboard.

Ms. Jennings said Ms. Moore explained some of the logistics, including that the plane would be assigned landing and departure times in a two-hour window. At that point, Ms. Moore wrote, the plan was for the children to be present at the airport, screened on the tarmac and taken out of Haiti.

In addition to its personnel on the flight, West Penn Allegheny was preparing to receive children at its Suburban Campus in Bellevue if necessary, said Dan Laurent, a spokesman for Allegheny General Hospital.

"Suburban Campus is the site of our inpatient pediatrics program -- including pediatric critical care. Dr. Susan Kaczorowski, a pediatric critical care specialist and chair of the Department of Pediatrics, has been involved locally in the effort. She said the on-flight medical crew will likely be triaging the kids on the flight to determine who needs to go where," he said.

Luke Hingson, president of Pittsburgh-based international charity Brother's Brother Foundation, said sponsors of the flight, whom he declined to identify, offered space on the plane to carry medical supplies. He said the organization provided "several thousand pounds" of supplies, including antibiotics, surgical packs and instruments.

Dr. Lambert, who also is volunteer medical director for Brother's Brother, planned to stay on the island for several days to consult on medical matters, Mr. Hingson said.

The offices of Reps. Mike Doyle and Sens. Bob Casey and Arlen Specter also were involved in arranging the flight, but Mr. Altmire was said to be leading the effort.

The U.S. State Department was made aware of the flight but did not organize it, according to spokesman Matthew Buffington.

Allegheny County as of yesterday had identified more than 300 licensed caregivers to provide housing to the children, spokeswoman Megan Dardanell said.


Tracie Mauriello, David Templeton, Karamagi Rujumba, Jill Daly, Pohla Smith, Dan Malloy, Dan Majors contributed to this report. Jon Schmitz can be reached at jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868. Sadie Gurman can be reached at sgurman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1878.


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